Presidency by Prince Emeka Obasi
Nigerians often have a riveting sense of humor. The Nigerian capacity to turn practically everything into a joke is unsurpassed. Maybe that explains why, several years ago, Nigeria was adjudged to be the happiest country in the world. It is only an unrivaled sense of humour that can explain the incongruity of a people who live in this dysfunctional social milieu to still retain the ability to smile, and even dare to be happy! Nothing captures the Nigerian ability for morbid humour more than this saying: ‘’All things wise and wonderful, Nigeria kills them all.’’
Lagos has, for many decades, remained the shining example of the Nigerian possibility. In its legendary chaos; its notorious traffic jams, its dysfunctional public utilities and its endless stream of people; this city of aquatic splendor has continued to fascinate millions and draw in thousands, annually. From the end of the civil war in 1970, Lagos has grown rapidly to its front-line position today as Nigeria’s leading city state and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. It is the centre of Nigeria’s commerce, finance and trade. It features one of the busiest sea ports in Africa and one of the busiest airports on the continent. It has become home to millions of Nigerians.
This status of Lagos arose mainly from its advantageous geographical location, especially its long coastline. Then when it became the capital of the newly emergent Nigerian nation, it also became the citadel of Nigeria’s aspirations to greatness. Millions of Nigerians flocked to Lagos to join in the wheeling and dealing which the federal capital status facilitated.
The economic prosperity of the oil boom years augured well for Lagos as the construction of multi-lane roads and other huge infrastructural facilities, flourished. Workers were required for these projects and they came from all parts of Nigeria.
I have lived in Lagos for over three decades now. Since then and even before, I do not have a recollection of any disagreement over the ownership of Lagos. It was always clear to many Nigerians that Lagos belongs to the geographical zone of the country called the South West, which is peopled by the Yoruba. In other words, Lagos is Yoruba land. But more than that, Lagos is Nigeria in many ways than one. It is a melting pot for all Nigerians; from East, West, North and South. Each one came and contributed his own quota towards building what has today become the most formidable economy in Nigeria. The former governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, once said to me that if Lagos were to be a country, it would obviously be the fourth richest country in Africa. What he meant was that the GDP of Lagos would rank fourth on the list of African countries.
However, in recent years, relations between the various ethnic nationalities in Lagos have come under increasing strain. Often, it has to do with electoral choices by the Lagos electorate. The All Progressives Congress (APC) leadership in Lagos has assumed the right of selecting and appointing the leadership of the state. By their overall attitude, they seem to suggest that everyone else should either support that leadership or stay away. But some other members of the Lagos electorate have consistently refused to accept this situation and the resultant conflict has created cracks in the communal relationship in Lagos.
Increasingly, the situation has created conflicts and today, there is tension among the various ethnic groups, especially between the Yoruba and the Igbo. This tension was amplified in a very dramatic episode last week. The Senator representing Lagos Central Senatorial District, the wife of the former governor of Lagos State, Senator Oluremi Tinubu, publicly told an Igbo man that, “We do not trust you people again.”
That encounter is not only sad, but reflects the growing gulf between the Yoruba community and the Igbo in Lagos. Anyone who is conscious of the havoc which ethnic and racial discrimination can wreck on any society should be worried by this metastising cancer. Nigeria cannot afford to have another civil war based on ethnicity.
However, more importantly, Lagos cannot continue to grow and become the national model it ought to be, if ethnic discrimination or prejudice is allowed to take hold. The Lagos success story owes to the fact that it is a land of opportunities where anyone who is willing to work hard, and who applies himself, can achieve success. It is truly a land of opportunities because of its huge market. And it is everyone who lives in Lagos that makes up that market. For anyone to suggest that some Lagosians should be more privileged than others would be to create an environment for crisis.
Lagos is not just like any other Nigerian city; it was to be the capital of Nigeria for the greater part of the country’s history. And a lot of the resources that were used to develop and build it into the commercial powerhouse it is today, were derived from different parts of Nigeria. Therefore, it cannot be the exclusive preserve of one group. At any rate, Lagos is part of Nigeria and by the constitution of Nigeria, all Nigerians have the right to live in any part of Nigeria as full citizens, entitled to all the rights and privileges of citizenship.
I have read so many opinions by many people, some of who are uninformed, sadly, and suffer from ethnic prejudices. They insist that since Lagos belongs to the Yoruba, non-Yoruba in Lagos should know their place.
Sometime ago, the Lagos House of Assembly, perhaps in pursuit of the ‘Yorubanisation’ policy that is emergent in Lagos, passed a bill making Yoruba an official language of communication in the State House of Assembly. Sadly, I do not recall that any Civil Rights Activist has challenged that clearly wrongful bill in court. English is the official Language in Nigeria as provided for in the constitution of Nigeria. It therefore, beats the imagination that a state which has one of the highest literacy rates in Nigeria, peopled by some of the most educated and sophisticated ethnic nationalities in the country, will take such a retrogressive step, perhaps in a misguided bid to keep non-Yoruba Lagosians out.
There is also another piece of legislation which I find very curious. The State House of Assembly also passed a bill making the teaching of Yoruba language compulsory for students in primary and secondary schools, both in private and public schools. I think there is even another law that makes a “Yoruba speaking day,” compulsory in private and public schools in Lagos.
What is very sad about these developments is that even otherwise reasonable people support them. Is it not ironical that whereas we want Lagos to develop as a cosmopolitan city like Paris, London, New York, Milan and Washington; we still want to keep it down as perhaps the last outpost of the defunct Oyo Empire! We cannot approbate and reprobate at the same time.
It should be clear to everyone that the train has long left the station. Lagos is on its way to emerging as the foremost cosmopolitan city in Africa. It cannot do that as a tribal enclave. It can only do that as an open society that has room for everyone; no matter their creed, no matter their origin and even no matter their nationality.
There are many Nigerians who live in other parts of the world. Some of these people own properties in these countries. No one has denied them the right to own property or live in those countries solely on the basis of their nationality or ethnic origin. Those who make the argument that other countries of the world make provisions for the protection of their own citizens miss a crucial point. Lagos is not a country. The Yoruba nation is also not a country. The Yoruba are part of the ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. Lagos is a state in Nigeria. It does not have sovereign powers. Every Nigerian is equal in every part of Nigeria before the law. The recourse to ethnicity is part of the primordial tendencies that have kept Nigeria down. If it is wrong in one instance, it should be wrong in every other instance. No decent Nigerian or reasonable person should support the recourse to ethnicity and other such divisiveness for whatever reason, even if it is to achieve short term political advantages.
As Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. In Nigeria, ethnic baiting is the last refuge of the political desperado; of people who are unable to raise the bar of public discourse and make their point without recourse to base sentiments. Individuals who contest for elections should do so on the basis of the quality of their manifesto. Resorting to ethnic baiting diminishes them and creates an environment for social conflict.
Nigeria cannot develop sustainably and neither can our democracy progress meaningfully, if we do not rise above primordialism in our political choices. It is obvious to me that the increasing tempo in the ethnic baiting project is a reflection of the growing poverty in the land. In every society where poverty is endemic, people often resort to class wars as an outlet for their frustrations. And it is for this reason that I worry.
Given the increasing poverty in the land, and the bleak prospects of a turnaround, the long term prognosis for Nigeria is dire. Increasingly, there is going to be social tension as different segments of society take on each other. Ethnic baiting is a traditional Nigerian fault-line. It competes seriously with religious discrimination, for pride of place in the Nigerian hall of infamy. My fear is that unless wise counsel prevails, and the promoters of these satanic gospel desist, this wonderful city of aquatic splendor whose pulsating state of dysfunction has cast an enchanting spell on successive generation of Nigerians, stand the risk of going the Nigerian way: destruction.
If we lose Lagos, clearly, we would have taken the first giant step towards the eventual dissolution of the Nigerian mosaic. Interestingly, for some people, that would be a tragedy foretold. And for others, it might even be good riddance to bad rubbish. But for me, it will be a pity because both Lagos and Nigeria hold out immense prospects for Africa and the black world. Lagos should remain the beacon of hope it has always been.